Over the three years of research we undertook for the Connectors Study, we systematically reflected on the methods we used to produce and collect our data, and we consciously experimented with the tools and methods we employed. Feeding back our experiences of fieldwork to each other over the three years, in research meetings and other moments of exchange, as well as our interlocutors’ reactions to the fieldwork, and thinking together about what worked and how in our fieldwork, we have been rethinking and readjusting our methods to better understand and capture our children interlocutor’s views and experiences. In this post Christos and Melissa reflect on one significant example of this reflective practice, which we have come to refer to as ‘configuring matters’, a method we came up with, about halfway into the research.
Having enquired repeatedly for over a year with our interlocutors about the ‘things that mattered’ to them using various methods, we reached a point at which we had collected a meaningful amount of data regarding things that the children of the study regarded as significant to them. This data archive consisted of discussions, experiences, and visual artefacts that in one form or another constituted a thinking through what a childhood publics might consist of, and what the ‘politics of care and concern’ might look in childhood, and how strangers, a key membership category of a publics, may ‘connect’ through their cares and concerns.
We decided to feed back our inquiry to our interlocutors, and share with them what we had observed, experienced and collected about the issued that mattered to them. We did this by way of presenting them with our preliminary findings about things that matter to all the children in the study across the three cities, and asking them to re-assess the collection of matters of concern by assessing and discussing how important each matter was or wasn’t to them personally and why.
We sought out the fifty more frequently met ‘things’ in our data, that our interlocutors had commented on as being significant to them. We bought several packs of small square cards intended for a DIY ‘memory’ game, and we handwrote each of the fifty things on each card. From the outset we had purposely used the polysemous word ‘things’ for its ability to signify an area of objects, people, people, relationships, thoughts, activities and state of affairs. We reasoned that polysemy would provide a space for our interlocutors to define and signify their own matters of concern with minimum imposition from us. As such, the index cards ended up marked with words such as: Parents, siblings, cartoons, fast food, sweets, play, friends, time for oneself, pets, YouTube videos and many more.
We took the cards to each child, always carrying a number of blank cards too so they could add a new ‘thing’ if they thought something was missing from the starting collection of 50, and we asked them to arrange the cards around a given center of ‘most important’, usually carrying out the activity on the floor. We asked our interlocutors to place cards that were more important for them closer to the center, then the less important further away from the center ending with the cards that were least or not important at all, which were placed as far as possible from the center. Throughout the process we discussed the process the children were engaging in, of configuring and reconfiguring their matters of care and concern. We talked together about the choices they were making as well as asked our interlocutors to comment on their most and least significant choices.
The method has generally sat well with the children, as a playful and reflective exercise. It has proven to be a very significant source of data production for us, enabling us on the one hand to feedback and reassess some of our initial thoughts and analysis and on the other hand to generate fresh data.
Significantly however it has also made us reflect on our practice at an epistemological level, in particular through the ways that the sorting game was appropriated and perhaps re-designed on some occasions by our interlocutors. Our request to the children to place matters of most importance in the center and to work outwards towards least important was challenged by the children. Our initially thinking that linked center with importance and periphery with insignificance, is, we realized in retrospect an embedded cultural trope. It can be found in ecological thinking such as that of well-known child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, as well as outdated cosmological thinking which lingers on in the cultural imaginary with phrases such as ‘center of the universe’ or ‘revolving around’ somebody or something.
A number of the children resisted such ordered and culturally specific configurations of social life and forced us to rethink popular social scientific representations of relationships (e.g. ecological maps) which we had long taken-for-granted. As in the picture in the beginning of the post, some children, resisting the idea of a singular center and periphery, and chose instead to create other configurations to express their relationships to their cares and concerns, configurations that consisted of with multiple centers and relationships between centres that were specific to each child and their biography. In resisting and overturning our singular logic, which bore the unmistakable mark of our own ontologies and epistemologies, the children in the study instead put forth a more rhizomatic configuration of their everyday lives as narrated through what mattered to them.